The United States and Russia were locked in contentious diplomatic talks on January 10th, 2022, attempting to settle tensions over Ukraine. Officials from Ukraine and the West have been concerned about a buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders, threatening to increase conflict in the region, for months, but new developments suggest the situation may be reaching a boiling point. While there are currently 100,000 troops positioned on Ukraine’s borders, intelligence suggests that this number could almost double in the coming weeks, relating to a military operation the Kremlin has drafted. This issue is complicated and far-reaching but has roots in not only Russia’s relationship to Ukraine but with the West as well.
The Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War, with many former soviet territories breaking into independent nations, territories that Vladimir Putin has wanted to reclaim since he took power. While Ukraine voted to secede from the Soviet Union in 1991, it shares numerous cultural, linguistic, and political ties to Russia, to the point where Russians still view themselves as “one people” with Ukrainians. While tensions had been growing for years, the crisis in Ukraine truly began when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March of 2014. This maneuver heightened ethnic divisions, sparking violence by Russian-backed separatist forces hoping to join the Russian Federation that has already killed over 10,000 people. Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine has also included multiple cyber attacks since 2014, one of which crippled Ukraine’s power system causing 225,000 people to lose power, while others have directly attacked government computer systems.
But Vladimir Putin has another reason to pressure Ukraine in this way. With Russian forces pressing their borders, Ukraine has been vying for membership in NATO, an organization detested by the Russian president since the Cold War. Putin has portrayed the eastern expansion of NATO with the inclusion of seven Eastern European countries as an invasion into his sphere of influence, and an existential crisis for his country. The military action on Ukraine’s border is as much of a reaction to their increasing involvement with NATO as it is to their history with Russia. If NATO did accept Ukraine, they would have to manage violent, Russian-backed conflicts, something many NATO leaders are disposed to avoid. Vladamir Putin’s detest of NATO also comes from the Cold War, where they were the Soviet Union’s main adversary, so his determination to keep them from spreading east stems from his goal of returning Russia to its former Soviet glory.
At the end of their diplomatic discussion, Russia has sworn not to invade Ukraine, but Ukrainians are skeptical of this. Russian soldiers have a pattern of appearing under a Soviet-era trick from 1983, where they appear in unmarked uniforms so officials in Moscow can deny any affiliation; misdirection is a common tactic for Russia, causing Ukrainian and Western officials to doubt their words. However, the talks on January 10th have left all parties in largely the same space, simply giving them a platform to clarify their positions. Russia has demanded broad military concessions from NATO and pledges to stop their eastward expansion, while European leaders have urged de-escalation on Ukraine’s border to protect security structures that have kept peace in Europe since the end of World War II. This may be a troubling sign, but diplomats have agreed to more discussions throughout the next week. Leaders from all sides will be watching intently.
If you want this author’s opinion, the situation is endlessly delicate. The situation seems more like one from the Cold War era than 2022, with the threat of an invasion and a clash between the East and West, so the same tact required to escape the Cold War without direct warfare will be required here. Russia is determined to stop NATO, an old enemy, and reclaim their status in the world, so it will leverage every advantage it has. Added with the deep ties Ukraine and Russia share, a perfect storm is brewing in Eastern Europe to change the political climate for years to come.
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Global Conflict Tracker. "Conflict in Ukraine." Counsel on Foreign Relations, 13 Jan. 2022, www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-ukraine.
Kramer, Andrew E. "A Russian Pledge of No Invasion? Ukrainians Are Skeptical." The New York Times, 11 Jan. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/01/11/world/ europe/ukraine-russia.html.
Schwirtz, Michael, and Scott Reinhard. "How Russia's Military Is Positioned to Threaten Ukraine." The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2022, www.nytimes.com/ interactive/2022/01/07/world/europe/ ukraine-maps.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
Wong, Edward, and Lara Jakes. "NATO Won't Let Ukraine Join Soon. Here's Why." The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/01/13/us/politics/ nato-ukraine.html.